Toxic Shock

Starting a meth lab takes little skill or cash. The cleanup is another story.

"You can go down to Wal-Mart and buy a box of cold pills, a gallon of Coleman fuel, a couple of boxes of wooden matches, and maybe they have a case of de-icer on sale," Grove notes. "Put that stuff in a bag and put it in your closet, and you now have a drug lab in your house. The only thing missing is intent. If the police come into your house and find it, your house could be vacated and boarded up until somebody does some monitoring to determine how much contamination is in your walls, your carpet, your furniture. And if you have kids in that same house, that's a felony in itself.

"The cause is noble, but do you really want to go down this path? And what if you're just renting? What happens to the homeowner or the motel owner who has their place shut up? What are acceptable levels of contamination? What if you take a perfectly good piece of residential property and deem it to be a toxic waste site?"

When it comes to meth labs, the unknowns are huge. No one knows the true scope of the health problems faced by police or fire workers who raid the labs (or kids who play in them), because the data isn't in yet. Standards for cleanup vary from state to state -- and, in Colorado, from one jurisdiction to the next -- because the risks associated with residual meth contamination are still under study. Given an absence of conclusive evidence on the long-term picture, Moriarty contends that it's best to be cautious.

Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force 
commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for 
meth-lab raiders.
Mark Manger
Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for meth-lab raiders.
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the 
decontamination of meth-tainted property.
Mark Manger
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the decontamination of meth-tainted property.

"You can say these are household chemicals, but once they're mixed, they're no longer harmless," she says. "We're doing a disservice to the citizens in our state if we don't treat every lab as a serious situation."


Denver detective Marty Vanover opened a Pandora's box while rummaging through the remnants of a dormant meth lab three years ago. It was an ordinary shoebox filled with crumpled newspaper.

The newspaper was wrapped around something, but Vanover didn't need to look further. As soon as he saw the paper, stained a deep, reddish purple, he shut the lid and ordered an evacuation. Iodine in crystal form sublimes quickly when exposed to the air; the Einstein who ran this particular operation must have busted the container it came in and stuffed the crystal into the shoebox for later use.

"I knew it was iodine," Vanover recalls. "But I'd already opened the box."

Vanover emerged from the house with a runny nose. He soon developed breathing troubles and landed in intensive care two weeks later; he spent five days there, recovering from pneumonia. A month after that, he was back in another lab.

"Most people in narcotics don't want anything to do with meth labs," he says. "You have to want to go in. The way I look at it, you're doing something important to protect your community."

Now assigned to District One, Vanover no longer tackles labs. But the chances that any of his successors will suffer a similar inhalation exposure have been greatly reduced by the protective equipment and procedures that law-enforcement agencies have since adopted for lab searches. The gear is unwieldy, costly and sometimes debilitating, but it works.

Aside from the possibility of explosions, fires and the occasional booby trap, respiratory damage is the greatest health risk posed by the labs. The toxic vapors produced by the manufacturing process are rarely vented properly and permeate walls, carpets and furniture. Add to that the sloppiness of the average addled meth cook, the frequent splashes and spills, the shabby garage-sale glassware used, and improper storage of unlabeled ingredients, residues and by-products -- in leaky jars, cat-litter jugs and shoeboxes -- and you've got an uncontrolled experiment in atmospheric mutation.

"Any moron can make meth," says Vanover, who's cooked batches under strict quality controls in a DEA lab. "It takes a chemist to make it safely."

Dealing with the vapors has transformed cops into hazardous-materials workers, decked out in shiny suits and impermeable masks. The most extreme protection is known as Level A -- a fully encapsulated, solvent-resistant suit with a Teflon visor, an oxygen tank, self-contained booties and a vapor-sealed zipper. Depending on the circumstances, a Level A response might require up to four pairs of gloves and a silver flame-retardant finish; the experience is not unlike walking at the bottom of a swimming pool, trying to pick up pennies with thick mittens and hissing like Darth Vader. The suits cost between $800 and $1,300 -- or thousands more for the heavier, Robbie-the-Robot models used in major haz-mat emergencies -- and are warrantied for very limited use.

Fortunately, Level A suits are rarely needed in meth labs. They're too bulky for close work in cluttered, trash-strewn apartments and basements (some meth cooks make the pre-makeover slobs on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy seem like obsessive-compulsive neatniks). Standard gear for the labs is a Level B ensemble, a much lighter plastic suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus, a mask hooked up to a tank that offers about an hour's worth of air. The suit costs as little as $12; the mask, around $170; the tank apparatus, along with communication devices, special monitors for phosphine gas and other vapors, and other gear, $3,000 to $5,000; the peace of mind, priceless.

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